It ill became Milton to cast contempt on these reasonings, seeing that a whole system of them was necessary for the argument of his poem. He is so little of a philosopher that he seems hardly to be conscious of the difficulties of his own theory. Both in Paradise Lost and in the Treatise of Christian Doctrine he enlarges with much dogmatism and some arrogance on the difference between foreknowledge and foreordination. He rejects predestination decisively, but he not only does not answer, he does not even so much as mention, the difficulty that arises in attempting to distinguish between what is foreordained by Omniscience and what is foreknown by Omnipotence. Pope compared some of the speeches delivered in Heaven to the arguments of a "School-divine." The comparison does injustice to the scholastic philosophers. There was never one of them who could have walked into a metaphysical bramble-bush with the blind recklessness that Milton displays.
It is time to return to Eden and its inhabitants. They have little to do but "to lop and prune and prop and bind," to adore their Maker, and to avoid the prohibited tree. It would perhaps have been impossible for a poet with more dramatic genius than Milton to make these favourites of Heaven interesting in their happy state, while yet the key that was to admit them to our world of adventure and experience, of suffering and achievement, hung untouched on a tree. And Adam, from the wealth of his inexperience, is lavishly sententious; when anything is to do, even if it is only to go to sleep, he does it in a high style, and makes a speech. Milton plainly saw the danger of arousing a sense of incongruity and ludicrous disproportion from the contest between these harmless tame creatures and the great forces of Satan's empire. So he makes man strong in innocence, and, unlike the fallen angels, exempt from all physical pain or wound. He even goes so far as to make Satan afraid of Adam, of his heroic build and intellectual power. This last, it might be said, is a fear not explained by anything that we are privileged to hear from the lips of Adam himself; but perhaps, in the case of our great ancestor, we shall do well to remember Hamlet's advice to the players, "Follow that lord, and look you mock him not."
There remains a more important person—Eve. And with Eve, since the beginning of Milton criticism, there enter all those questions concerning the comparative worthiness and the relative authority of husband and wife which critics of Milton so often and so gladly step aside to discuss. Every one knows the line:—
He for God only, she for God in him.
Almost every one knows the lines:—
Nothing lovelier can be found In woman than to study household good, And good works in her husband to promote.
Milton certainly shared the views of Knox concerning the "Monstrous Regiment of Women." It is unnecessary to meet him on his own ground, or to attempt a theory that shall explain or control Eve, Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Catherine of the Medici, Mary Powell, and others of their sex. Such theories prove only that man is a generalising and rationalising animal. The poet brought his fate on himself, for since Eve was the mother of mankind, he thought fit to make her the embodiment of a doctrine. But he also (a thing of far deeper interest) coloured his account by the introduction of personal memories and feelings. Of Eve, at least, he never writes indifferently. When he came to write Samson Agonistes, the intensity of his feelings concerning Dalila caused him to deviate from the best Greek tradition and to assign inappropriate matter to the Chorus. And even in his matter-of-fact History of Britain, the name of Boadicea awakens him to a fit of indignation with the Britons who upheld her rule. There is full scope in Paradise Lost for similar expressions of indignation. Adam, after the Fall, speaks of his wife as
Not to be trusted—longing to be seen Though by the Devil himself.
In the Eleventh Book the daughters of men are described as bred only
to sing, to dance, To dress, and troll the tongue, and roll the eye.
But Milton, it is sometimes forgotten, was also the author of that beautiful eulogy of Eve in the Eighth Book:—
When I approach Her loveliness, so absolute she seems And in herself complete, so well to know Her own, that what she wills to do or say Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest, best. All higher Knowledge in her presence falls Degraded; Wisdom in discourse with her Loses, discountenanced, and like Folly shows; Authority and Reason on her wait, As one intended first, not after made Occasionally; and, to consummate all, Greatness of mind and nobleness their seat Build in her loveliest, and create an awe About her, as a guard angelic placed.
It is an exact parallel to Florizel's praise of Perdita in The Winter's Tale:—
When you speak, sweet, I'd have you do it ever: when you sing, I'd have you buy and sell so, so give alms, Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs, To sing them too; when you do dance, I wish you A wave o' the sea, that you might ever do Nothing but that; move still, still so, And own no other function: each your doing, So singular in each particular, Crowns what you are doing in the present deed, That all your acts are queens.
But Florizel addresses his praise to the lady herself; while Adam, who had never been young, confides it in private to Raphael, after dinner, and studies a more instructive and authoritative strain in his conversations with Eve. And now comes a point worthy of remark. The Angel, to whom, it cannot be doubted, Milton committed the exposition of his own views, after hearing this confession, frowns, and administers a tart reproof. He describes Eve, somewhat grudgingly, as "an outside—fair, no doubt," and peremptorily teaches Adam the duties of self-appreciation and self-assertion:—
Oft-times nothing profits more Than self-esteem, grounded on just and right Well managed. Of that skill the more thou know'st, The more she will acknowledge thee her head, And to realities yield all her shows.
And in the sequel, Adam bitterly laments that he had failed to profit by this advice. He might have been comforted by the wisdom of Chaucer's Franklin:—
When maistrie cometh, the god of love anon Beteth his wynges and, farewel, he is gon!
The explanation of all this is clear to see. Milton was not, as he has sometimes been described, a callous and morose Puritan. He was extraordinarily susceptible to the attractions of feminine beauty and grace. Adam's confession is his own. But the ideal of character that he had put before himself caused him passionately to resent this susceptibility. It was the joint in his harness, the main breach in his Stoicism, the great anomaly in a life regulated as for his Task-master. He felt that beauty was a power not himself, unbalancing and disturbing the rational self-centred poise of his soul. There have been poets whose service of Venus Verticordia was whole-hearted. But to Milton the power of Beauty was a magnetism to be distrusted for its very strength. He felt something of what he makes Satan express, that there is terror in love and beauty "not approached by stronger hate." The Chorus in Samson Agonistes makes a similar observation:—
Yet beauty, though injurious, hath strange power After offence returning, to regain Love once possessed.
To escape from the dominion of the tyrant is the duty of a wise man. When Raphael remarked that "Love ... hath his seat in Reason, and is judicious," he committed himself to a statement which a longer experience of the world would have enabled him to correct. But Milton wished it true; and perhaps even lured himself into a belief of its truth. At any rate, when Satan, in Paradise Regained, expounds his opinion on the matter, it is found, for once, to be in substantial agreement with Raphael's:—
Beauty stands In the admiration only of weak minds Led captive; cease to admire, and all her plumes Fall flat, and shrink into a trivial toy, At every sudden slighting quite abashed.
It is a great loss to literature that Mrs. Millamant, the delightful heroine of Congreve's comedy, was no reader of Milton. Her favourite author was Suckling:—
I prithee spare me, gentle boy, Press me no more for that slight toy, That foolish trifle of a heart.
If she had a copy of the Paradise Regained, doubtless it stood in some conspicuous place, and was never opened,—like Mrs. Wishfort's "books over the chimney—Quarles and Prynne, and 'The Short View of the Stage,' with Bunyan's works, to entertain you." But all unawares she has answered the contention of Satan:—"O the vanity of these men!—Fainall, d'ye hear him? If they did not commend us, we were not handsome! Now you must know that they could not commend one, if one was not handsome. Beauty the lover's gift!—Lord, what is a lover, that it can give? ... One no more owes one's beauty to a lover than one's wit to an echo."
Like most men of an impressionable temperament and a strong will, Milton was not sympathetic, nor curious to place himself where he might see the world from a point of view other than his own. Besieged by their sensations and impressions, concerned above all things with maintaining their opinions and enforcing their beliefs on others, such men find enough to do within the citadel of their own personality. To judge from some passages of his works, one half of the human race was to Milton an illusion to which the other half was subject. One who is in love with his own ideas cannot but be disappointed alike with existing institutions and with the tissue of surprises that is a person. Milton's disappointment, which had inspired the early Divorce pamphlets, finds renewed expression in Adam's prophecy of unhappy marriages—a notable parallel to the similar prophecy in Venus and Adonis—
For either He never shall find out fit mate, but such As some misfortune brings him, or mistake; Or whom he wishes most shall seldom gain, Through her perverseness, but shall see her gained By a far worse; or, if she love, withheld By parents; or his happiest choice too late Shall meet, already linked and wedlock-bound To a fell adversary, his hate or shame.
But, with all this, of our two grand parents Eve is the better drawn and the more human. Milton did not intend that it should be so, but he could not help it. One consequence of the doctrine—
He for God only, she for God in him—
is that Adam's single impulse of unselfishness, whereby he elects to share the offence and punishment of Eve, is a vice in him, a "bad compliance." Self-abnegation, the duty of Eve, is hardly within the right of Adam; and Dr. Johnson expressed a half-truth in violently paradoxical terms when he said that Milton "thought woman made only for obedience and man only for rebellion." It would be truer, and weaker, to say that Milton thought woman made for the exercise of private, and man for the exercise of public, virtues. Hence in their mutual relations Eve carries off all the honours, for her duty towards Adam coincides with her inclination, while in his case the two are at variance. There is no speech of Adam's to be matched with the pleading intensity of Eve's appeal, beginning—"Forsake me not thus, Adam!"—and to her Milton commits the last and best speech spoken in Paradise:—
But now lead on; In me is no delay; with thee to go Is to stay here; without thee here to stay Is to go hence unwilling; thou to me Art all things under Heaven, all places thou, Who for my wilful crime art banished hence.
She is generous and loving; her only reproach addressed to Adam is that he acceded to her request, and permitted her, on that fateful morning, to do her gardening alone, among the roses and myrtles. She is a fair companion picture to set over against Dalila, and is utterly incapable of Dalila's hypocrisy in justifying private treachery by reasons of public policy. There is even a certain dramatic development in her character; after she has eaten of the fruit, audacity and deceit appear in her reflections; she meditates withholding from Adam the advantages of the tree, in order that she may become—
More equal, and perhaps— A thing not undesirable—sometimes Superior.
It is easy to understand how tired Eve might well become (even before the fallacious fruit was tasted) of Adam's carefully maintained superiority. On thinking, however, of the judgment that she may have to suffer, and of her own death, she resolves to draw him in, her motive being not fear, but a sudden movement of jealousy at the thought of—
Adam wedded to another Eve.
This is as near an approach to drama in the handling of a human situation as is to be found in all Paradise Lost.
But enough of this vein of criticism, which is justified only by the pleasure of detecting Milton too imperfectly concealed behind his handiwork. To treat the scenes he portrays as if analysis of character were his aim, and truth of psychology his touchstone, is to do a wrong to the artist. He is an epic, not a dramatic, poet; to find him at his best we must look at those passages of unsurpassed magnificence wherein he describes some noble or striking attitude, some strong or majestic action, in its outward physical aspect.
In this, the loftiest part of his task, his other defects, as if by some hidden law of compensation, are splendidly redeemed. While he deals with abstract thought or moral truth his handling is tight, pedantic, and disagreeably hard. But when he comes to describe his epic personages and his embodied visions, all is power, and vagueness, and grandeur. His imagination, escaped from the narrow prison of his thought, rises like a vapour, and, taking shape before his eyes, proclaims itself his master.
No other poet has known so well how to portray, in a few strokes, effects of multitude and vastness. Now it is the sacred congregation in Heaven:—
About him all the Sanctities of Heaven Stood thick as stars, and from his sight received Beatitude past utterance.
Now the warrior host of Hell:—
He spake; and, to confirm his words, outflew Millions of flaming swords, drawn from the thighs Of mighty Cherubim; the sudden blaze Far round illumined Hell.
In these, as in other like scenes, he preserves epic unity by throwing the whole into the distance. So after the approach of the Messiah to battle, "the poet," says Coleridge, "by one touch from himself—'far off their coming shone!'—makes the whole one image." He describes at a greater range of vision than any other poet: the frame-work of his single scenes is often not less than a third of universal space. When he has added figure to figure in the endeavour to picture the multitudinous disarray of the fallen Angels on the lake, one line suffices to reduce the whole spectacle to its due dimensions beneath that cavernous tent of darkness:—
He called so loud that all the hollow deep Of Hell resounded.
The same effect of number and vastness, diminished and unified by the same reference to a larger setting, wherein all is seen at a glance, may be noted in the description of the raising of Satan's standard in Hell:—
The imperial ensign, which, full high advanced, Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind, With gems and golden lustre rich emblazed, Seraphic arms and trophies; all the while Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds: At which the universal host up-sent A shout that tore Hell's concave, and beyond Frighted the reign of Chaos and old Night. All in a moment through the gloom were seen Ten thousand banners rise into the air, With orient colours waving: with them rose A forest huge of spears; and thronging helms Appeared, and serried shields in thick array Of depth immeasureable.
Sometimes a line or two gives him scope enough for the rendering of one of these epic scenes, immense and vivid. The ruin and prostration of the rebels is made visible in two lines:—
Cherub and Seraph rolling in the flood With scattered arms and ensigns.
And the picture of the East rises at a touch:—
Dusk faces with white silken turbants wreathed.
In the drawing of single attitudes Milton studies the same large decorum and majesty. He is never tempted into detail in the describing of gesture or action; never loses the whole in the part. The bulk of Paradise Lost was written between the sixth and the thirteenth years of his blindness. Since the veil had fallen he had lived with the luminous shapes that he could picture against the dark. The human face had lost, in his recollection of it, something of its minuter delineation, but nothing of its radiance. On the other hand, the human figure, in its most significant gestures and larger movements, haunted his visions. His description of the appearance of the wife whom he had never seen is an early model of many of his later drawings. She comes to his bedside and leans over him, stretching forth her arms:
Her face was veiled; yet to my fancied sight Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shined So clear as in no face with more delight.
Adam and Eve, as they are first seen in Paradise, have the same shining quality, the same vagueness of beauty expressing itself in purely emotional terms. Satan standing on the top of Mount Niphates, looking down on Eden spread out at his feet, and then with fierce gesticulation addressing himself to the sun at the zenith, is one of the dim solitary figures that dwell in the mind's eye. No less impressive and no less indefinite are those two monumental descriptions of the rebel leader; the first, of his going forth to war in Heaven:—
High in the midst, exalted as a God, The Apostate in his sun-bright chariot sat, Idol of majesty divine, enclosed With flaming Cherubim and golden shields.
and the other, of his encounter with Gabriel:—
Satan, alarmed, Collecting all his might, dilated stood, Like Teneriff or Atlas, unremoved: His stature reached the sky, and on his crest Sat Horror plumed; nor wanted in his grasp What seemed both spear and shield.
In these, and in a hundred other notable passages, the images are as simple and broad as the emotional effects that they produce,—the sun, flame, gold, a mountain, the sky.
Some of the scenes and situations delineated by Milton are of a gentler and more elusive virtue than these terrors and sublimities. His descriptions of morning and evening are always charged with emotion—the quiet coming-on of night in Eden; or the break of day in the wilderness of the Temptation, with a sense of joy and relief "after a night of storm so ruinous." His feeling for the imaginative effects of architecture in a landscape is extraordinarily subtle. One, at least, of these effects is hardly to be experienced among the hedgerows and farmsteads and placid rambling towns of England. Travellers in Italy, or in the East, are better able to understand the transfiguration of a landscape by the distant view of a small compact array of walls and towers perched on a vantage-ground among the hills of the horizon. The lawlessness of Nature, the homelessness of the surface of the earth, and the fears that haunt uninhabited places, are all accentuated by the distrust that frowns from the battlements of such a stronghold of militant civility. For this reason, perhaps, the architectural features in certain pictures and drawings have an indescribable power of suggestion. The city, self-contained and fortified, overlooking a wide expanse of country, stands for safety and society; the little group of figures, parleying at the gate, or moving down into the plain, awakens in the mind a sense of far-off things,—the moving accidents of the great outer world, and the dangers and chances of the unknown. Bunyan, whose imagination was nourished on the Eastern scenery and sentiment of the Bible, shows himself powerfully affected by situations of this kind, as where, in the beginning of the Pilgrim's Progress, he describes the man with his face from his own home, running from the City of Destruction, and the group of his kindred calling after him to return:—"but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life, Life, Eternal Life: so he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain."
Such another figure is Milton's Abdiel, who escaped from the rebel citadel—
And with retorted scorn his back he turned On those proud towers, to swift destruction doomed.
The perils of his flight are vaguely indicated by a few admirable touches in the opening of the next Book:—
All night the dreadless Angel, unpursued, Through Heaven's wide champaign held his way, till Morn Waked by the circling Hours, with rosy hand Unbarred the gates of Light.
A more signal instance of the same poetic effect is to be found in the wonderful close of Paradise Lost, where Adam and Eve are led down from the garden by the archangel Michael, and are left standing in the vast plain below:—
They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld Of Paradise, so late their happy seat, Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms. Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon; The world was all before them, where to choose Their place of rest, and Providence their guide. They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow, Through Eden took their solitary way.
Criticism might exhaust itself in the effort to do justice to the beauty of this close. Of Adam and Eve it may be truly said that none of all their doings in the garden became them like the leaving of it. Yet Addison and Bentley, the ornaments of a polite and learned age, are at one in their depreciation of the last two lines. Addison, after a formal apology for "the smallest Alteration in this divine Work," boldly recommends amputation; while Bentley, with the caution of a more experienced surgeon, offers to crutch the lines on certain wooden contrivances of his own. The three epithets, "wandering," "slow," and "solitary," are all censured by him. Our first parents, he remarks, were guided by Providence, and therefore needed not to wander; they were reassured by Michael's predictions, and so might well display an engaging briskness; while as for "their solitary way," they were no more solitary than in Paradise, "there being no Body besides Them Two, both here and there." He therefore suggests a distich more agreeable to the general scheme:—
Then hand in hand with social steps their way Through Eden took, with Heav'nly Comfort cheer'd
It is impossible to answer such criticism; the organs of human speech are too frail. Let Bentley be left to contemplate with delight the hideous gash that his chopper has inflicted on the Miltonic rhythm of the last line. If Addison, for his part, had been less concerned with the opinions of M. Bossu, and the enumeration of the books of the AEneid, he might have found leisure to notice that the two later poems, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, are each brought to a close which exactly resembles the close of Paradise Lost. After the splendours in the last book of Paradise Regained—the fall of Satan, "smitten with amazement," from the pinnacle of the Temple, the elaborate classical comparisons of Antaeus and the Sphinx, and the triumphal chorus of Angels who bear the Son of God aloft with anthems of victory—the poem ends with the same exquisite lull:—
He, unobserved, Home to his mother's house private returned.
And Samson Agonistes brings as glorious a triumph to no less peaceful a close:—
And calm of mind, all passion spent.
The dying fall is the same in all three, and is the form of ending preferred by the musical and poetic genius of Milton.
Passages of a crowded and ostentatious magnificence are more frequent in Paradise Lost than in either of the two later poems. In Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes the enhanced severity of a style which rejects almost all ornament was due in part, no doubt, to a gradual change in Milton's temper and attitude. It is not so much that his power of imagination waned, as that his interest veered, turning more to thought and reflection, less to action and picture. In these two poems, at the last, he celebrated that
better fortitude Of patience and heroic martyrdom
which he had professed to sing in Paradise Lost. We are told by his nephew that he "could not bear with patience any such thing related to him" as that Paradise Regained was inferior to Paradise Lost. He was right; its merits and beauties are of a different and more sombre kind, yet of a kind perhaps further out of the reach of any other poet than even the constellated glories of Paradise Lost itself. It should be remembered that Paradise Lost, although it was written by Milton between the fiftieth and the fifty-seventh years of his age, was conceived by him, in its main outlines, not later than his thirty-fourth year. Two of the passages noticed above, where Satan addresses himself to the Sun and where the Angel leads Adam and Eve out of Paradise, embody situations which had appealed to his younger imagination. Some of the very words of Satan's address were written, we learn from Phillips, about 1642. And the expulsion of Adam and Eve seems to contain a reminiscence of the time when Milton was considering the history of Lot as a possible subject for an epic. The lines—
In either hand the hastening Angel caught Our lingering parents—
were perhaps suggested by the Scripture narrative—"And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife,... and they brought him forth, and set him without the city" (Genesis xix. 16).
The gravity and density of the style of Paradise Lost would have been beyond the power of youth, even of the youth of Milton; but the action of the poem, with all its vividness and vigour, could perhaps hardly have been first conceived in mature age. The composition was long deferred, so that in the decade which witnessed the production of all three great poems we see a strangely rapid development, or change rather, of manner. In Paradise Lost Milton at last delivered himself of the work that had been brooding over him "with mighty wings outspread" during all the years of his manhood. But his imagination could not easily emancipate itself from that overmastering presence; and when he took up with a fresh task he gladly chose a theme closely related to the theme of Paradise Lost, and an opportunity of re-introducing some of the ancient figures. A kind-hearted, simple-minded, pig-headed young Quaker, called Thomas Ellwood, takes to himself credit for having suggested a sequel to the story of the Fall. "Thou hast said much here," he remarked to Milton, "of Paradise Lost; but what hast thou to say of Paradise Found?" The words, as it seemed to Ellwood, sank deep, and did their work. "He made me no answer, but sate some time in a muse, then brake off that discourse and fell upon another subject." Perhaps while he sat in a muse Milton was attempting to sound, with the plummet of conjecture, the abyss of human folly, "dark, wasteful, wild." So early as in the fourth line of Paradise Lost, and already very fully in the Third Book, he had treated of Paradise Found as an integral part of his subject. The episode of the Eleventh and Twelfth Books was wholly concerned with it. It seems not unlikely, however, that he caught at the suggestion as an excuse for a new and independent work. One of the commonest kinds of critical stupidity is the kind that discovers something "unfinished" in a great work of art, and suggests desirable trimmings and additions. Milton knew that Paradise Lost was finished, in every sense. But room had not been found in it for all that now held the chief place in his matured thought. When he chose the theme of his great work, the actual temptation of man probably bulked much larger in his design than it does in the completed poem. His epic creatures, from being the machinery of the poem, usurped a share of the control. With all Milton's care and skill, there is very little interest in the actual plucking of the apple; Eve was too simple a pleader to make much of the case for the defence. Yet human life presented itself to Milton chiefly under the guise of a series of temptations. The title of one of Andrew Marvell's pieces might well be used to describe the whole canon of his poetry, from L' Allegro to Samson Agonistes—all are parts of A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure. To his youthful fancy Mirth and Melancholy present themselves in the likeness of rival goddesses, claiming allegiance, and offering gifts. The story of Samson is a story of temptation, yielded to through weakness, punished by ignominy, and, in the end, magnificently expiated. In Comus is shown how the temptations of created pleasure may be resisted by the chastity of the "resolved soul." In Paradise Lost, however, the resolved soul had somehow, failing Man, found for itself a congenial habitation in the Devil. The high and pure philosophy of the Lady and her brothers has no counterpart in the later and greater poem. Milton, therefore, willingly seized on the suggestion made by Ellwood; and in Paradise Regained exhibited at length, with every variety of form and argument, the spectacle of—
one man's firm obedience fully tried Through all temptation, and the Tempter foiled In all his wiles, defeated and repulsed
The subject of Comus is repeated; but in place of the dazzling allurement of the senses which is the temptation of the earlier poem, there is the temptation of the will, the appeal made in vain by Satan to those more strenuous and maturer passions of pride, ambition, love of wealth, and love of power. Instead of the innocent and instinctive purity of the Lady, which unmasks the fallacies of Comus, there is heard in Paradise Regained the voice of a high Stoical philosophy, strong in self-sufficiency, rich in illustrations drawn from the experience of the ages, and attributed, by this singular poet, to the Christ.
If his only purpose had been to make a worthy epical counterpart to Paradise Lost, those critics are doubtless right who think his chosen subject not altogether adequate to the occasion. The Fall of Man is best matched by the Redemption of Man—a subject which Milton, whether he knew it or not, was particularly ill-qualified to treat. It is sketched, hastily and prosaically, in the Twelfth Book of Paradise Lost; but there is no escaping from the conclusion that the central mystery of the Christian religion occupied very little space in Milton's scheme of religion and thought. Had he chosen this subject, the account given, in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, of the Descent into Hell might have furnished him with rich material for one part of his theme. The conquest of the upper world by Satan, narrated in Paradise Lost, might have had for natural sequel the triumphant descent into Hell of the King of Glory, and the liberation of the captives. For Milton's grandiose epical vein the theme has great opportunities, as a brief summary of the Gospel of Nicodemus will show:—
Karinus and Leucius, sons of Simeon, being raised from the dead, write what occurred during their sojourn in the realm of Hades: "While we were lying, along with our fathers, in the depth of the pit and in the uttermost darkness, suddenly there appeared the golden hue of the sun, and a purple royal light shining in upon us. Then the father of all mankind and all the patriarchs and prophets rejoiced, saying: 'That light is the author of everlasting light, who hath promised to translate us to everlasting light.' And Isaiah cried out, and said: 'This is the Light of the Father, the Son of God, according to my prophecy that I prophesied when I was alive upon the earth, "The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, beyond Jordan; the people which sat in darkness saw a great light, and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up." And now he has come, and has shone upon us who are sitting in death.'
Then Simeon spoke in a like strain of exultation. John the Baptist arrived, a herald of the King of Glory; and Seth, at the bidding of Adam, told how Michael the Archangel had refused him oil from the tree of mercy for the anointing of the body of Adam when he was sick, and had comforted him with the assurance that when the years should be fulfilled Adam would be raised up again, and led into Paradise.
And even while the saints were rejoicing there broke out dissension among the lords of Hell. Satan, boasting of his latest exploit, told Hades, the prince of Hell, how he had led Jesus of Nazareth captive to death. But Hades was ill satisfied and asked, 'Perchance this is the same Jesus who by the word of his command took away Lazarus after he had been four days in corruption, whom I kept as dead?' And Satan answered and said, 'It is the same.' And when Hades heard this he said to him, 'I adjure thee by thy powers and mine, bring him not to me. For when I heard the power of his word I trembled for fear, and all my officers were struck with amazement.' And while they were thus disputing, suddenly there was a voice as of thunder, and a shouting as of a multitude of spirits, saying, 'Lift up your gates, O ye princes, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.' Then Hades, hearing this, said to Satan, 'Depart from me, and get thee out of my realm; if thou art a powerful warrior, fight against the King of Glory.' And he cast him forth from his habitations.
And while David and Isaiah were speaking, recalling the words of their prophecy, there came to Hell, in the form of a man, the Lord of Majesty, and lighted up the eternal darkness, and burst asunder the indissoluble chains, and seizing Satan delivered him over to the power of Hades, but Adam he drew with him to his brightness.
Then Hades receiving Satan reviled him vehemently and said, 'O Prince of perdition, and author of extermination, derision of angels and scorn of the just, why didst thou do this thing? All thy riches which thou hast acquired by the tree of transgression and the loss of Paradise, thou hast now lost by the tree of the cross, and all thy joy has perished.'
But the Lord, holding Adam by the hand, delivered him to Michael the Archangel, and all the saints followed Michael the Archangel, and he led them into Paradise, filled with mercy and glory."
Milton would hardly have entertained for a moment the idea of a subject taken from one of the apocryphal gospels. And even if he had felt no scruples on this point, the theme of the Harrying of Hell would hardly have commended itself to him in his later years, least of all its triumphant close. His interest was now centred rather in the sayings of the wise than in the deeds of the mighty. The "crude apple that diverted Eve" was indeed a simple theme compared with the profound topics that are treated in Samson Agonistes. The dark tangle of human life; the inscrutable course of Divine providence; the punishment so unwittingly and lightly incurred, yet lying on a whole nation "heavy as frost, and deep almost as life"; the temptation presenting itself in the guise neither of pleasure, nor of ambition, but of despair; and, through all, the recurring assertion of unyielding trust and unflinching acquiescence in the will of God; the song of the Chorus—
Just are the ways of God And justifiable to men—
finding an echo in Samson's declaration—
Nothing of all these evils hath befallen me But justly; I myself have brought them on; Sole author I, sole cause;
—these together make up a theme where there is no possible place for the gay theology of Paradise Lost. The academic proof of God's justice, contained in the earlier poem, if it were introduced into Samson Agonistes could be met only with the irony of Job: "Am I a sea, or a sea-monster, that thou settest a watch over me?... What is man, that thou shouldest magnify him, and that thou shouldest set thine heart upon him, and that thou shouldest visit him every morning, and try him every moment?" The question has become a real one; not to be answered now by the dogmatism and dialectic of a system. Milton's bewilderment and distress of mind are voiced in the cry of the Chorus:—
Yet toward these thus dignified thou oft Amidst their height of noon Changest thy countenance, and thy hand with no regard Of highest favours past From thee or them, or them to thee of service.
And there follows their humble prayer, heard and answered with Divine irony on the very day of their asking:—
So deal not with this once thy glorious champion, The image of thy strength and mighty minister. What do I beg? How hast thou dealt already? Behold him in this state calamitous, and turn His labours, for thou canst, to peaceful end.
In the days that now, as he looked back on his youth and manhood, must have seemed to him both distant and barren, Milton had sought for triumph, in action and in argument. His seeking was denied him; but he found peace, and the grace to accept it.
CHAPTER V THE STYLE OF MILTON: METRE AND DICTION
To approach the question of Milton's poetic style thus late in the course of this treatise is to fall into the absurdity of the famous art-critic, who, lecturing on the Venus of Milo, devoted the last and briefest of his lectures to the shape of that noble work of art. In truth, since Milton died, his name is become the mark, not of a biography nor of a theme, but of a style—the most distinguished in our poetry. But the task of literary criticism is, at the best, a task of such disheartening difficulty, that those who attempt it should be humoured if they play long with the fringes of the subject, and wait for courageous moments to attack essentials.
In one sense, of course, and that not the least important, the great works of Milton were the product of the history and literatures of the world. Cycles ferried his cradle. Generations guided him. All forces were steadily employed to complete him.
But when we attempt to separate the single strands of his complex genealogy, to identify and arrange the influences that made him, the essential somehow escapes us. The genealogical method in literary history is both interesting and valuable, but we are too apt, in our admiration for its lucid procedure, to forget that there is one thing which it will never explain, and that thing is poetry. Books beget books; but the mystery of conception still evades us. We display, as if in a museum, all the bits of thought and fragments of expression that Milton may have borrowed from Homer and Virgil, from Ariosto and Shakespeare. Here is a far-fetched conceit, and there is an elaborately jointed comparison. But these choice fragments and samples were to be had by any one for the taking; what it baffles us to explain is how they came to be of so much more use to Milton than ever they were to us. In any dictionary of quotations you may find great thoughts and happy expressions as plentiful and as cheap as sand, and, for the most part, quite as useless. These are dead thoughts: to catalogue, compare, and arrange them is within the power of any competent literary workman; but to raise them to blood-heat again, to breathe upon them and vitalise them is the sign that proclaims a poet. The ledger school of criticism, which deals only with borrowings and lendings, ingeniously traced and accurately recorded, looks foolish enough in the presence of this miracle. There is a sort of critics who, in effect, decry poetry, by fixing their attention solely on the possessions that poetry inherits. They are like Mammon—
the least erected Spirit that fell From Heaven; for even in Heaven his looks and thoughts Were always downward bent, admiring more The riches of Heaven's pavement, trodden gold, Than aught divine or holy else enjoyed In vision beatific.
With curious finger and thumb they pick holes in the mosaic; and wherever there is wealth they are always ready to cry "Thief!"
There is real interest in the enumeration of Milton's borrowings, and in the citation of parallel passages from the ancients to illustrate his work. But since style is the expression of a living organism, not a problem of cunning tesselation, it is permissible, in this place, to pass over what he borrowed from the ancients, in order to deal with a more intimate matter, and to attempt a valuation of that which he borrowed from no one, either ancient or modern.
His indomitable personality and irrepressible originality have left their stamp on all his work, and have moulded his treatment, his handling, his diction, his style. We, who have been inured for centuries to Miltonic mouthings and mannerisms, are too likely to underestimate the degree of his originality. Coleridge was probably wrong when he said that "Shakespeare's poetry is characterless; that is, it does not reflect the individual Shakespeare." But he was unquestionably right when he added that "John Milton himself is in every line of Paradise Lost." The more they are studied, the more do Milton's life and his art seem to cohere, and to express the pride and the power of his character.
Consider first his choice of subject. Ever since the Renaissance had swept modern poetry back to the pagan world, some voices of protest had been raised, some swimmers, rather bold than strong, had attempted to stem the tide. Among the earliest of these was Thomas Sternhold, Groom of the Chamber to King Henry the Eighth. Inspired perhaps by the example of a better poet, Clement Marot, Sternhold thrust some of the Psalms of David into a carterly metre, "thinking thereby," says Anthony a Wood, in his delightfully colloquial fashion, "that the courtiers would sing them instead of their sonnets, but did not, only some few excepted." In the reign of Elizabeth, when the classical mythology reigned and revelled in pageant and masque, in court and town, one Thomas Brice, a painful preacher, cried out against the pagan fancies that had caught the English imagination captive:—
We are not Ethnickes, we forsoth at least professe not so; Why range we then to Ethnickes' trade? Come back, where will ye go? Tel me, is Christe or Cupide lord? Doth God or Venus reign?
But he cried to deaf ears, and the Elizabethan age produced no body of sacred poetry worth a record. The beautiful metrical version of the Psalms, made by Sir Philip Sidney and his sister, remained in manuscript for centuries. Drayton's Harmonie of the Church was suppressed. Robert Southwell, whose lyrics on sacred subjects give him a unique place among the poets of his age, joins in the oft-repeated complaint:—
Stil finest wits are 'stilling Venus' rose, In Paynim toyes the sweetest vaines are spent; To Christian workes few have their talents lent.
It was left for George Herbert and his contemporaries to take up the attempt once more—this time with better success—"to reprove the vanity of those many love poems that are daily writ and consecrated to Venus, and to bewail that so few are writ that look towards God and heaven."
Cannot thy dove Outstrip their Cupid easily in flight? Or, since thy ways are deep, and still the same, Will not a verse run smooth that bears thy name?
But although Herbert and his successors, in their devotional lyrics, gave a whole new province to English poetry, they left the idolatrous government of the older provinces undisturbed. Dramatic and narrative poetry went on in the old way, and drew their inspiration from the old founts. Year by year, as our native poetic wealth increased, it became more and more difficult to break with the past, and to lead poetry back to Zion. Nature and precedent seemed allied against the innovation. The worst of religious poetry, as Johnson more than once pointed out, is its poverty of subject, and its enforced chastity of treatment. You cannot make a picture out of light alone; there must be something to break it on. Then, too, there was Shakespeare to be reckoned with: he had written no hymns nor spiritual songs; among the works of God, he had found man to be deserving of his unremitting attention; yet, while a certain monotony of manner afflicted the singers of good and godly ballads, he had seemed never at a loss for a subject, never at the end of the copious inspiration that he drew from his unsanctified themes.
Nevertheless, the seventeenth century, which stirred so many questions in politics and criticism, stirred this also; the fitness of sacred subjects for heroic poetry was debated long and ardently both in France and England, and many experiments were made. These experiments belong, as might be expected, mainly to the time of the civil troubles. It was then that the versifying of the Psalms became a desolating industry; and Mr. Zachary Boyd, an ornament of the University of Glasgow, having worked his will on King David, made bold rhyming raids on passages of the Bible that are usually allowed to rest in prose. The high places of scholarship felt the new infection. Early in 1648, Joseph Beaumont, afterwards Master of Peterhouse, and Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, published his poem called Psyche, or Love's Mystery, in twenty cantos. "My desire is," he says in the preface, "that this book may prompt better wits to believe that a divine theam is as capable and happy a subject of poetical ornament, as any pagan or humane device whatsoever." The poem is about four times as long as Paradise Lost, and was written in eleven months, which circumstance, his admiring biographer allows, "may create some surprise in a reader unacquainted with the vigorous imagination, and fertile flow of fancy, which so remarkably distinguished our author from the common class of writers." A further explanation by the same eulogist, who edited Beaumont's Original Poems in 1749, makes all clear. "Our Author," it appears, "did not look upon poetry as the serious business of his life; for whilst he was thus amusing his leisure hours with the Muses, he wrote a full and clear commentary upon the Book of Ecclesiastes, and large critical notes upon the Pentateuch." After this, the astonished reader will perhaps be disinclined to verify the statement, reluctantly made, that in the poems of our author "we sometimes meet with a vicious copiousness of style, at others, with an affectation of florid, gay, and tedious descriptions; nor did he always use the language of nature."
Next, Cowley "came in robustiously and put for it with a deal of violence" in his sacred poem entitled Davideis. In the exordium of the First Book he proclaims his mission:—
Too long the Muses-Lands have Heathen bin Their Gods too long were Devils, and Vertues Sin; But Thou, Eternal World, hast call'd forth Me, Th' Apostle, to convert that World to Thee: T' unbind the charms that in slight Fables lie, And teach that Truth is truest Poesie.
But it was not to be. His "polisht Pillars of strong Verse" were destined never to carry a roof. The theme, so vigorously introduced, soon languished; and by the time he had completed a Fourth Book, it lay, for all his nursing skill, prematurely dead on his hands. The poem is not finished, and yet there is nothing to add.
After Cowley in date of composition, but before him in date of publication, Davenant in his Gondibert shows traces of the prevalent ambition. He rejects all supernatural fables, and makes it a point of sound doctrine to choose only Christians for his characters. But that poem, too, broke off in the middle.
In France the question had been as zealously discussed, and had been illustrated by experiments no less elaborate. In 1657, a year after the appearance of Cowley's Davideis, Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin brought out his sacred poem of Clovis, with a great flourish of trumpets, and a long prose demonstration that its theme was the grandest a French poet could choose. The real supernatural of the Christian religion, so he argued, is a subject much nobler for poetry than the pagan mythology, as the sunlight is brighter than the shadow. The controversy dragged on till 1673, when Boileau, in the third book of his Poetic, settled the question for the nonce, and fixed the opinion of the succeeding generation of critics. He casts an equal ridicule upon Clovis and upon the theory which it was designed to illustrate:—
The arts of fiction give the air of lies Even to the most unquestioned verities; And what a pious entertainment, too, The yells of Satan and his damned crew, When, proud to assail your Hero's matchless might, With God himself they wage a doubtful fight.
So the burial of Clovis was hastened by ridicule. Yet every one of the arguments brought against that poem by Boileau holds equally good against Paradise Lost, which Milton, knowing as little of Boileau as Boileau knew of him, had published some six years earlier. Paradise Lost, it might almost be said, is superior to Clovis in nothing, except the style. By the force of his genius and the magic of his style, Milton succeeded in an attempt thought hopeless by the best critical judges of his century, and won his way through a ravine that was strewn with the corpses of his epic predecessors.
His courage and originality are witnessed also by the metre that he chose for his poem. To us blank verse seems the natural metre for a long serious poem. Before Milton's day, except in the drama, it had only once been so employed—in an Elizabethan poem of no mark or likelihood, called A Tale of Two Swannes. While Milton was writing Paradise Lost the critics of his time were discussing whether the rhymed couplet or some form of stanza was fitter for narrative poetry, and whether the couplet or blank verse better suited the needs of drama. As no one, before Milton, had maintained in argument that blank verse was the best English measure for narrative poetry dealing with lofty themes, so no critic had ever been at the pains to refute that opinion. In the year of the publication of Paradise Lost, Dryden delivered his judgment, that the rhymed couplet was best suited for tragic passages in the drama, and that blank verse should be employed chiefly for the lighter and more colloquial purposes of comedy. Some echo of the courtly dispute then in progress between Dryden and his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Howard, probably reached Milton's ear through his bookseller, Samuel Simmons; for it was at the request of his bookseller that he added the three Miltonic sentences on "The Verse," by way of preface. With his accustomed confidence and directness of attack he begs the question in his first words:—"The measure is English heroic verse without rime"; and in his closing words he takes credit to himself for his "example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recovered to heroic poem from the troublesome and modern bondage of riming."
In these two cardinal points, then—the matter and the form of his poem—Milton was original. For the one there was no true precedent in English; for the other there was no precedent that might not rather have been called a warning. His matter was to be arranged and his verse handled by his own ingenuity and at his own peril. He left a highroad behind him, along which many a tuneful pauper has since limped; but before him he found nothing but the jungle and false fires. In considering his style, therefore, it is well to treat the problem as it presented itself to him, and to follow his achievement as he won step by step out of the void.
There were two great influences in English poetry, other than the drama, when Milton began to write: the influence of Spenser and the influence of Donne. Only the very slightest traces of either can be discerned in Milton's early verse. There are some Spenserian cadences in the poem On the Death of a Fair Infant, written in his seventeenth year:—
Or wert thou of the golden-winged host Who, having clad thyself in human weed, To earth from thy prefixed seat didst post, And after short abode fly back with speed, As if to show what creatures Heaven doth breed; Thereby to set the hearts of men on fire To scorn the sordid world, and unto Heaven aspire?
The later verses on The Passion, written in the same metre, are perhaps the last in which Milton echoes Spenser, however faintly. Meanwhile, in the hymn On the Morning of Christ's Nativity, he had struck a note that was his own, and it is not surprising that he left the poem on the Passion unfinished, "nothing satisfied with what was begun."
As for the great Dean of St. Paul's, there is no evidence that Milton was touched by him, or, for that matter, that he had read any of his poems. In the verses written At a Vacation Exercise, he expressly sets aside
Those new-fangled toys and trimming slight Which takes our late fantastics with delight;
and he very early came to dislike the fashionable conceits that ran riot in contemporary English verse. A certain number of conceits, few and poor enough, is to be found scattered here and there in his early poems. Bleak Winter, for instance, is represented in three cumbrous stanzas, as the slayer of the Fair Infant:—
For he, being amorous on that lovely dye That did thy cheek envermeil, thought to kiss, But killed, alas! and then bewailed his fatal bliss.
In the lines on Shakespeare the monument promised to the dead poet is a marvel of architecture and sculpture, made up of all his readers, frozen to statues by the wonder and astonishment that they feel when they read the plays. But perhaps the nearest approach to a conceit of the metaphysical kind is to be found in that passage of Comus, where the Lady accuses Night of having stolen her brothers:—
O thievish Night, Why shouldst thou, but for some felonious end, In thy dark lantern thus close up the stars Which Nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps With everlasting oil to give due light To the misled and lonely traveller?
When Milton does fall into a vein of conceit, it is generally both trivial and obvious, with none of the saving quality of Donne's remoter extravagances. In Donne they are hardly extravagances; the vast overshadowing canopy of his imagination seems to bring the most wildly dissimilar things together with ease. To his unfettered and questioning thought the real seems unreal, the unreal real; he moves in a world of shadows, cast by the lurid light of his own emotions; they take grotesque shapes and beckon to him, or terrify him. All realities are immaterial and insubstantial; they shift their expressions, and lurk in many forms, leaping forth from the most unlikely disguises, and vanishing as suddenly as they came.
Sometime we see a cloud that's dragonish; A vapour sometime like a bear or lion, A tower'd citadel, a pendent rock, A forked mountain, or blue promontory With trees upon't that nod unto the world, And mock our eyes with air: thou hast seen these signs; They are black Vesper's pageants.
They are the poems of John Donne. Nothing could be further from the manner of Milton, or less likely to overcome his own positive imagination. Here are two examples of Donne's best poetic manner:—
But yet thou canst not die, I know; To leave this world behind, is death; But when thou from this world wilt go, The whole world vapours with thy breath.
Twice or thrice had I loved thee, Before I knew thy face or name; So in a voice, so in a shapeless flame Angels affect us oft, and worshipp'd be.
Let it be considered what Milton means by the terms "World" and "Angel," how clear an external reality each embodies for him. Any forced comparison used by him is not an attempt to express a subtlety, but merely a vicious trick of the intellect. The virtues of the metaphysical school were impossible virtues for one whose mind had no tincture of the metaphysic. Milton, as has been said already, had no deep sense of mystery. One passage of Il Penseroso, which might be quoted against this statement, is susceptible of an easier explanation:—
And if aught else great bards beside In sage and solemn tunes have sung Of turneys, and of trophies hung, Of forests, and enchantments drear, Where more is meant than meets the ear.
He alludes no doubt to Spenser, and by the last line intends only allegory—a definite moral signification affixed to certain characters and stories—not the mystic correspondences that Donne loves. The most mysterious lines in Comus are these:—
A thousand fantasies Begin to throng into my memory, Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, And airy tongues that syllable men's names On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.
They are purely Elizabethan and reminiscent. But if the stranger beauties of the metaphysical school were beyond his reach, its vices touched him wonderfully little, so that his conceits are merely the rare flaws of his early work.
The dramatists were a much more potent influence than either Spenser or the metaphysical school. He learned his blank verse from the dramatists. Perhaps he took the subject of Comus from the Old Wives' Tale of George Peele; and when he set himself to write a masque he was doubtless well acquainted with the works of the chief master in that kind, Ben Jonson. William Godwin, in his Lives of Edward and John Phillips, expresses the opinion that Milton studied the works of Jonson more assiduously than those of any other Elizabethan. The specific evidence that he cites—a few passages of possible reminiscence—is not convincing. He has no more striking coincidence to show than the resemblance between a phrase in Il Penseroso:—
Come, but keep thy wonted state
and two lines of Jonson's Hymn to Cynthia:—
Seated in thy silver chair State in wonted manner keep.
If the original genius of a poet is to be sworn away at this rate, there will soon come a time when no man is secure. Both words are common in Elizabethan English; if their occurrence in a single line is to warrant a charge of plagiarism, the next step will be to make them Jonson's property, and to forbid the use of either to all but the tribe of Ben. Milton doubtless studied Jonson's works; and, if specific resemblances are both weighed and counted, a good case can be made out for the influence of Jonson's prose on the author of the Areopagitica. But the fact is that criticism finds itself here in a region where this minute matching of phrase with phrase is useless or misleading. Milton's early poems grew on Elizabethan soil, and drank Elizabethan air. It matters little that there are few verbal coincidences; the influence is omnipresent, easy to feel, impossible to describe in detail. From whom but the Elizabethans could he have learned to write thus?—
Fly, envious Time, till thou run out thy race: Call on the lazy leaden-stepping Hours, Whose speed is but the heavy plummet's pace; And glut thyself with what thy womb devours.
The Elizabethan style is not to be mistaken, the high-figured phrases, loosely welded together, lulling the imagination into acquiescence by the flow of the melody. Lines like these might well occur in Richard II. The same Shakespearian note is clearly audible in such a passage as this, where Comus describes the two brothers:—
Their port was more than human, as they stood. I took it for a faery vision Of some gay creatures of the element, That in the colours of the rainbow live, And play i' the plighted clouds. I was awe-strook, And, as I passed, I worshipped. If those you seek, It were a journey like the path to Heaven To help you find them.
This has all the technical marks of late Elizabethan dramatic blank verse: "vision" as a trisyllable; the redundant syllable in the middle of the line; the colloquial abbreviation of "in the"; not to mention the fanciful vein of the whole passage, which might lead any one unacquainted with Milton to look for this quotation among the dramas of the prime. The great hyperbolical strain of the Elizabethans, which so often broke into rant, is caught and nobly echoed in praise of virtue:—
If this fail, The pillared firmament is rottenness And earth's base built on stubble.
Or, to take a last example of Milton's earlier style, this description of the Lady's singing is in marked contrast to the later matured manner:—
At last a soft and solemn-breathing sound Rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes, And stole upon the air, that even Silence Was took ere she was ware, and wished she might Deny her nature, and be never more Still to be so displaced. I was all ear, And took in strains that might create a soul Under the ribs of Death.
This has the happy audacity of Shakespeare, and his delight in playing with logic; it is almost witty. The Miltonic audacity of the later poems is far less diffuse and playful. When the nightingale sings, in Paradise Lost, "Silence was pleased." When Adam begs the Angel to tell the story of the Creation, he adds, "Sleep, listening to thee, will watch." Either of these paradoxes would have been tormented and elaborated into a puzzle by a true Elizabethan.
Milton, then, began as a pupil of the dramatists. But his tendencies and ambitions were not dramatic, so he escaped the diseases that afflicted the drama in its decadence. When he began to write blank verse, the blank verse of the dramatists, his contemporaries, was fast degenerating into more or less rhythmical prose. Suckling and Davenant and their fellows not only used the utmost license of redundant syllables at the end of the line, but hustled and slurred the syllables in the middle till the line was a mere gabble, and interspersed broken lines so plentifully that it became impossible even for the most attentive ear to follow the metre. A brief description of a Puritan waiting-woman may be taken as an illustration from Jasper Mayne's comedy of The City Match (1639). As a sample of blank verse it is perhaps somewhat smoother and more regular than the average workmanship of that time:—
She works religious petticoats; for flowers She'll make church-histories. Her needle doth So sanctify my cushionets; besides My smock-sleeves have such holy embroideries, And are so learned, that I fear in time All my apparel will be quoted by Some pure instructor. Yesterday I went To see a lady that has a parrot: my woman While I was in discourse converted the fowl; And now it can speak nought but Knox's works; So there's a parrot lost.
Blank verse that has learned to tolerate such lines as the two here set in italics can only end by becoming prose. And, indeed, that was the destined development of the drama, even had the theatres never been closed under the Commonwealth. The history of blank verse reflects with curious exactness the phases of the history of the drama. When the metre was first set on the stage, in the Senecan drama, it was stiff and slow-moving; each line was monotonously accented, and divided from the next by so heavy a stress that the absence of rhyme seemed a wilful injury done to the ear. Such as it was, it suited the solemn moral platitudes that it was called upon to utter. Peele, Marlowe, and Shakespeare made the drama lyrical in theme and treatment; the measure, adapting itself to the change, became lyrical in their hands. As the drama grew in scope and power, addressing itself to a greater diversity of matter, and coming to closer grips with the realities of life, the lyrical strain was lost, and blank verse was stretched and loosened and made elastic. During the twenty years of Shakespeare's dramatic activity, from being lyrical it tended more and more to become conversational in Comedy, and in Tragedy to depend for its effects rather on the rhetorical rise and fall of the period than on the unit of the line. From the drama of Charles the First's time, when inferior workmen had carried these licenses to the verge of confusion, it is a perfectly natural transition to the heroic couplet for Tragedy and the well-bred prose of Etherege for Comedy. Blank verse had lost its character; it had to be made vertebrate to support the modish extravagances of the heroic plays; and this was done by the addition of rhyme. Comedy, on the other hand, was tending already, long before the civil troubles, to social satire and the life-like representation of contemporary character and manners, so that prose was its only effective instrument.
At the time when blank verse was yielding to decay, Milton took it up, and used it neither for conversational nor for rhetorical purposes. In the interests of pure poetry and melody he tightened its joints, stiffened its texture, and one by one gave up almost all the licenses that the dramatists had used. From the first he makes a sparing use of the double ending. The redundant syllable in the middle of the line, which he sometimes allows himself in Comus, does not occur in Paradise Lost. In the later poem he adopts strict practices with regard to elision, which, with some trifling exceptions, he permits only in the case of contiguous open vowels, and of short unstressed vowels separated by a liquid consonant, in such words, for instance, as "dissolute," or "amorous." By a variety of small observances, which, when fully stated, make up a formidable code, he mended the shambling gait of the loose dramatic blank verse, and made of it a worthy epic metre.
In a long poem variety is indispensable, and he preserved the utmost freedom in some respects. He continually varies the stresses in the line, their number, their weight, and their incidence, letting them fall, when it pleases his ear, on the odd as well as on the even syllables of the line. The pause or caesura he permits to fall at any place in the line, usually towards the middle, but, on occasion, even after the first or ninth syllables. His chief study, it will be found, is to vary the word in relation to the foot, and the sentence in relation to the line. No other metre allows of anything like the variety of blank verse in this regard, and no other metrist makes so splendid a use of its freedom. He never forgets the pattern; yet he never stoops to teach it by the repetition of a monotonous tattoo. Hence there are, perhaps, fewer one-line quotations to be found in the works of Milton than in the works of any other master of blank verse. De Quincey speaks of the "slow planetary wheelings" of Milton's verse, and the metaphor is a happy one; the verse revolves on its axis at every line, but it always has another motion, and is related to a more distant centre.
It may well be doubted whether Milton could have given a clear exposition of his own prosody. In the only place where he attempts it he finds the elements of musical delight to consist in "apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another." By "apt numbers" he probably meant the skilful handling of stress-variation in relation to the sense. But the last of the three is the essential of Miltonic blank verse. There lies the secret for whoso can divine it.
Every well-marked type of blank verse has a natural gait or movement of its own, which it falls into during its ordinary uninspired moods. Tennyson's blank verse, when it is not carefully guarded and varied, drops into a kind of fluent sing-song. Examples may be taken, almost at random, from the Idylls of the King. Here is one:—
So all the ways were safe from shore to shore, But in the heart of Arthur pain was lord.
The elements of musical delight here are almost barbarous in their simplicity. There is a surfeit of assonance—all, shore, shore, lord; heart, Arthur; ways, safe, pain. The alliteration is without complexity,—a dreary procession of sibilants. Worst of all are the monotonous incidence of the stress, and the unrelieved, undistinguished, crowded poverty of the Saxon monosyllables.
No two such consecutive lines were ever written by Milton. His verse, even in its least admirable passages, does not sing, nor trip with regular alternate stress; its movement suggests neither dance nor song, but rather the advancing march of a body of troops skilfully handled, with incessant changes in their disposition as they pass over broken ground. He can furnish them with wings when it so pleases him. No analysis of his prosody can explain the wonders of his workmanship. But it is not idle to ask for a close attention to the scansion of lines like these, wherein he describes the upward progress of the Son of God and his escort after the Creation:—
The heavens and all the constellations rung, The planets in their station listening stood, While the bright pomp ascended jubilant.
In the last line the first four words marshal the great procession in solid array; the last two lift it high into the empyrean. Let any one attempt to get the same upward effect with a stress, however light, laid on the last syllable of the line, or with words of fewer than three syllables apiece, and he will have to confess that, however abstruse the rules of its working may be, there is virtue in metrical cunning. The passage in the Seventh Book from which these lines are quoted would justify an entire treatise. The five regular alternate stresses first occur in a line describing the progress over the wide plain of Heaven:—
He through Heaven, That opened wide her blazing portals, led To God's eternal house direct the way.
But, indeed, the examination of the music of Milton involves so minute a survey of technical detail as to be tedious to all but a few lovers of theory. The laws of music in verse are very subtle, and, it must be added, very imperfectly ascertained; so that those who dogmatise on them generally end by slipping into fantasy or pedantry. How carefully and incessantly Milton adjusted the sound to the sense is known to every reader of Paradise Lost. The dullest ear is caught by the contrast between the opening of the gates of Heaven—
Heaven opened wide Her ever-during gates, harmonious sound On golden hinges moving—
and the opening of those other gates—
On a sudden open fly, With impetuous recoil and jarring sound, The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate Harsh thunder, that the lowest bottom shook Of Erebus.
But there are many more delicate instances than these. In the choruses of Samson Agonistes, where he reaches the top of his skill, Milton varies even the length of the line. So he has hardly a rule left, save the iambic pattern, which he treats merely as a point of departure or reference, a background or framework to carry the variations imposed upon it by the luxuriance of a perfectly controlled art. The great charm of the metre of Wither, which Charles Lamb admired and imitated, lies in its facile combination of what, for the sake of brevity, may be called the iambic and trochaic movements. In L'Allegro and Il Penseroso Milton had proved his mastery of both its resources. The gaiety of these lines—
Haste thee, Nymph, and bring with thee Jest, and youthful Jollity—
passes easily into the solemnity of these—
But let my due feet never fail To walk the studious cloister's pale.
In Samson Agonistes he sought to extend something of the same liberty to the movement of blank verse. He freely intermixes the falling with the rising stress, shifting the weights from place to place, and often compensating a light patter of syllables in the one half of the line by the introduction of two or three consecutive strong stresses in the other half. Under this treatment the metre of Gorboduc breaks into blossom and song:—
O, how comely it is, and how reviving To the spirits of just men long oppressed, When God into the hands of their deliverer Puts invincible might.
To try to explain this marvel of beauty is to beat the air.
By his deliberate attention to the elements of verbal melody Milton gave a new character to English blank verse. But this is not all. Quite as important is the alteration that he made in the character of English poetic diction.
The essence of the lyric is that it is made up of phrases, not of words. The lines run easily because they run on tracks chosen for their ease by the instinct of generations and worn smooth by use. The lyrical phrase, when the first two or three words of it have been pronounced, finishes itself. From Carew's "Ask me no more," with its long train of imitations, to the latest banality of the music-halls, the songs that catch the ear catch it by the same device. The lyric, that is to say, is almost always dependent for its music on easy idiomatic turns of speech. The surprising word occurs rarely; with all the greater effect inasmuch as it is embedded in phrases that slip from the tongue without a trace of thought or effort. These phrases naturally allow of little diversity of intonation; they have the unity of a single word, a single accepted emphasis, and a run of lightly-stressed syllables more or less musical in sequence.
All this Milton changed. He chooses his every word. You cannot guess the adjective from the substantive, nor the end of the phrase from its beginning. He is much given to inverting the natural English order of epithet and noun, that he may gain a greater emphasis for the epithet. His style is not a simple loose-flowing garment, which takes its outline from its natural fall over the figure, but a satin brocade, stiff with gold, exactly fitted to the body. There is substance for it to clothe; but, as his imitators quickly discovered, it can stand alone. He packs his meaning into the fewest possible words, and studies economy in every trifle. In his later poetry there are no gliding connectives; no polysyllabic conjunctive clauses, which fill the mouth while the brain prepares itself for the next word of value; no otiose epithets, and very few that court neglect by their familiarity. His poetry is like the eloquence of the Lord Chancellor Bacon, as described by Ben Jonson:—"No man ever spake more neatly, more pressly, more weightily, or suffered less emptiness, less idleness in what he uttered. No member of his speech but consisted of his own graces. His hearers could not cough, or look aside from him, without loss." It is this quality of Milton's verse that makes the exercise of reading it aloud a delight and a trial. Every word is of value. There is no mortar between the stones, each is held in place by the weight of the others, and helps to uphold the building. In reading, every word must be rendered clearly and articulately; to drop one out, or to slur it over, is to take a stone from an arch. Indeed, if Lamb and Hazlitt are right in thinking that Shakespeare's greatest plays cannot be acted, by the same token, Milton's greatest poems cannot be read aloud. For his most sonorous passages the human voice is felt to be too thin an instrument; the lightest word in the line demands some faint emphasis, so that the strongest could not be raised to its true value unless it were roared through some melodious megaphone.
The carefully jewelled mosaic style was practised very early by Milton. It occurs already in the hymn on the Nativity:—
See how from far upon the eastern road The star-led wizards haste with odours sweet: O run, prevent them with thy humble ode And lay it lowly at his blessed feet.
The same deliberateness and gentle pause of words one after another rounding and falling like clear drops is found in the song of the Spirit in Comus:—
Sabrina fair, Listen where thou art sitting Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave, In twisted braids of lilies knitting The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair.
This is the effect which Sir Henry Wotton, Milton's earliest critic, speaks of, in a letter to Milton, as "a certain Doric delicacy in your songs and odes, whereunto I must plainly confess to have seen yet nothing parallel in our language."
There are poems, and good poems among the number, written on a more diffuse principle. If you miss one line you find the idea repeated or persisting in the next. It is quite possible to derive pleasure from the Faerie Queene by attending to the leading words, and, for the rest, floating onward on the melody. You can catch the drift with ease. The stream circles in so many eddies that to follow it laboriously throughout its course is felt to be hardly necessary: miss it once and you can often join it again at very near the same point. "But a reader of Milton," as an early critic of Milton remarks, "must be always upon duty; he is surrounded with sense; it rises in every line, every word is to the purpose. There are no lazy intervals: all has been considered, and demands and merits observation. Even in the best writers you sometimes find words and sentences which hang on so loosely, you may blow them off. Milton's are all substance and weight: fewer would not have served his turn, and more would have been superfluous. His silence has the same effect, not only that he leaves work for the imagination, when he has entertained it and furnished it with noble materials; but he expresses himself so concisely, employs words so sparingly, that whoever will possess his ideas must dig for them, and oftentimes pretty far below the surface."
An illustration and contrast may serve to point the moral. Here is an example of Spenser's diffuser style, taken from the second book of the Faerie Queene. Guyon, escaped from the cave of Mammon, is guarded, during his swoon, by an angel:—
Beside his head there satt a faire young man,
(This announces the theme, as in music.)
Of wondrous beauty and of freshest yeares,
(The fair young man was fair and young.)
Whose tender bud to blossom new began,
(The fair young man was young.)
And florish faire above his equal peers.
(The fair young man was fair, fairer even than his equals, who were also his peers.)
In the remaining lines of the stanza the comparison of his hair to the rays of the sun is played with in the same way:—
His snowy front curled with golden heares, Like Phoebus' face adorned with sunny rayes, Divinely shone; and two sharp winged sheares, Decked with diverse plumes, like painted Jayes, Were fixed at his back to cut his ayery wayes.
The whole stanza is beautiful, and musical with the music of redundance. Nothing could be less like Milton's mature style. His verse, "with frock of mail, Adamantean proof," advances proudly and irresistibly, gaining ground at every step. He brings a situation before us in two lines, every word contributing its share:—
Betwixt these rocky pillars Gabriel sat, Chief of the angelic guards, awaiting night.
With as decisive a touch he sketches the story of Jacob—
In the field of Luz, Dreaming by night under the open sky, And waking cried, This is the gate of Heaven.
Or the descent of Raphael:—
Like Maia's son he stood, And shook his plumes, that heavenly fragrance filled The circuit wide.
The packed line introduced by Milton is of a greater density and conciseness than anything to be found in English literature before it. It is our nearest native counterpart to the force and reserve of the high Virgilian diction. In his Discourse of the Original and Progress of Satire, Dryden has called attention to the close-wrought quality of Virgil's work. "Virgil," he says, "could have written sharper satires than either Horace or Juvenal, if he would have employed his talent that way. I will produce a verse and a half of his, in one of his Eclogues, to justify my opinion; and with commas after every word, to show that he has given almost as many lashes as he has written syllables: it is against a bad poet, whose ill verses he describes:—
non tu, in triviis, indocte, solebas Stridenti, miserum, stipula, disperdere, carmen?" [Wouldst thou not, blockhead, in the public ways, Squander, on scrannel pipe, thy sorry lays?]
Dryden appreciated the terrible force of this kind of writing for the purposes of satire. At its best, his own satire attains to something like it, as, for instance, in his description of Shaftesbury's early life:—
Next this (how wildly will ambition steer), A vermin wriggling in the usurper's ear, Bartering his venal wit for sums of gold, He cast himself into the saint-like mould; Groaned, sighed, and prayed, while godliness was gain, The loudest bagpipe of the squeaking train.
Except the first line, which is wholly idle, there is nothing that could be spared here. Pope, also, knew the value of condensation; but he works in antithetic phrases, so that his single words are less telling; and where Dryden's lines are swords edged with contempt, Pope's are stings, pointed with spite. Thus, of Lord Hervey:—
Amphibious thing! that acting either part, The trifling head, or the corrupted heart, Fop at the toilet, flatterer at the board, Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord. Eve's tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest, A cherub's face, a reptile all the rest; Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust, Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust.
The necessities of rhyme sometimes hamper both Dryden and Pope; and the nearest parallel to the manner of Virgil is to be sought in Milton. The famous line describing Samson—
Eyeless, in Gaza, at the mill, with slaves—
is a good example; the sense of humiliation and abasement is intensified at every step. Or, to take a passage in a very different key of feeling, the same quality is seen in the description of the obedience of Eve:—
Required with gentle sway And by her yielded, by him best received, Yielded with coy submission, modest pride, And sweet, reluctant, amorous delay.
The slight stress and pause needed after each word, to render the full meaning, produce, when the words are short as well as emphatic, a line of terrific weight and impact. What more heartbreaking effect of weariness and eternity of effort could be produced in a single line than this, descriptive of the dolorous march of the fallen angels?—
O'er many a frozen, many a fiery Alp, Rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs, dens, and shades of death.
It would be difficult to match this line. In The Tears of Peace, Chapman has a line (he repeats it in the Tragedy of Biron) which owes some of its strength to the same cause. He describes the body as—
This glass of air, broken with less than breath, This slave, bound face to face to death till death.
The eight stresses give the line a passionate energy.
All superfluous graces are usually discarded by Milton. He steers right onward, and gives the reader no rest. A French critic of that age, who has already been mentioned as the author of Clovis, praises Malherbe and Voiture and the worthies of their time, at the expense of the ancients. He calls Homer, especially, "a tattler, who is incessantly repeating the same things in the same idle ridiculous epithets,—the swift-footed Achilles, the ox-eyed Juno, far-darting Apollo." Milton felt none of this contempt for Homer, but he discarded the practice. His epithets are chosen to perform one exploit, and are dismissed when it is accomplished. As with single epithets, so with lines and phrases; he does not employ conventional repetitions either for their lyrical value or for wafting the story on to the next point of interest. He seeks no effects such as Marlowe obtained by the lyrical repetition of the line:—
To entertain divine Zenocrate.
He arrests the attention at every word; and when the thing is once said, he has done with it.
In his Discourse of Satire Dryden raises an interesting point. He makes mention of "the beautiful turns of words and thoughts, which are as requisite in this, as in heroick poetry itself, of which the satire is undoubtedly a species." His attention, he says, was first called to these by Sir George Mackenzie, who repeated many of them from Waller and Denham. Thereupon he searched other authors, Cowley, Davenant, and Milton, to find further examples of them; but in vain. At last he had recourse to Spenser, "and there I met with that which I had been looking for so long in vain. Spenser had studied Virgil to as much advantage as Milton had done Homer; and amongst the rest of his excellencies had copied that."
By the "turns of words and thoughts" Dryden here means the repetition of a word or phrase in slightly altered guise as the thought is turned over in the mind and presented in a new aspect. There is an almost epigrammatic neatness about some of the examples that he cites from Ovid and Catullus. It is not surprising that he failed to find these elegant turns in Milton, for they are few. Addison and Steele, writing in the Tatler, reproach him with having overlooked the speech of Eve in the Fourth Book of Paradise Lost:—
Sweet is the breath of Morn, her rising sweet, With charm of earliest birds; pleasant the Sun, When first on this delightful land he spreads His orient beams, on herb, tree, fruit, and flower, Glistering with dew; fragrant the fertile Earth After soft showers; and sweet the coming-on Of grateful Evening mild; then silent Night, With this her solemn bird, and this fair Moon, And these the gems of Heaven, her starry train: But neither breath of Morn, when she ascends With charm of earliest birds; nor rising Sun On this delightful land; nor herb, fruit, flower, Glistering with dew; nor fragrance after showers Nor grateful Evening mild; nor silent Night, With this her solemn bird, nor walk by moon, Or glittering star-light, without thee is sweet.
Dryden remarks that the elegance he speaks of is common in Italian sonnets, which are usually written on the turn of the first thought; and certainly this speech of Eve might be truly compared, in all but the metrical structure, to an interspersed sonnet. There is another elaborate piece of repetition at the close of the Tenth Book, where the humble prostration of Adam and Eve is described in exactly the form of speech used by Adam to propose it. But the repetition in this case is too exact to suit Dryden's meaning; by a close verbal coincidence the ritual of penitence is emphasised in detail, and the book brought to a restful pause. Scattered here and there throughout Milton's longer poems Dryden might, nevertheless, have found the thing he sought. One instance that he gives is taken from the fourth Georgic of Virgil, where Orpheus, leading Eurydice up from Hell, suddenly turns to look on her:—
Cum subita incautum dementia cepit amantem; Ignoscenda quidem, scirent si ignoscere Manes.
This turn—"deserving grace, if grace were known in Hell"—may easily be matched in Milton. In the Second Book of Paradise Lost is described how the damned
feel by turns the bitter change Of fierce extremes, extremes by change more fierce.
In the Fifth Book, when Raphael arrives at the gate of Paradise, the angels
to his state And to his message high in honour rise, For on some message high they guessed him bound.
In Samson Agonistes it is noted that nations grown corrupt
love bondage more than liberty, Bondage with ease than strenuous liberty.
Yet in the main Dryden is right, for even instances like these are not many, and the tricky neatness of Ovid is nowhere to be found in the English epic poet.
Milton seldom allows his verse to play in eddies; he taxes every line to its fullest capacity, and wrings the last drop of value from each word. A signal characteristic of his diction has its origin in this hard dealing. He is often not satisfied with one meaning from a word, but will make it do double duty. Here the Latin element in our language gave him his opportunity. Words borrowed from the Latin always change their usage and value in English air. To the ordinary intelligence they convey one meaning; to a scholar's memory they suggest also another. It became the habit of Milton to make use of both values, to assess his words in both capacities. Any page of his work furnishes examples of his delicate care for the original meaning of Latin words, such as intend—"intend at home ... what best may ease the present misery"; arrive—"ere he arrive the happy Isle"; obnoxious—"obnoxious more to all the miseries of life"; punctual—"this opacous Earth, this punctual spot"; sagacious—"sagacious of his quarry from so far"; explode—"the applause they meant turned to exploding hiss"; retort—"with retorted scorn his back he turned"; infest—"find some occasion to infest our foes." The Speaker of the House of Commons had to determine, some years ago, whether it is in order to allude to the Members as "infesting" the House. Had Milton been called upon for such a decision he would doubtless have ruled that the word is applicable only to Members whose deliberate intention is to maim or destroy the constitution of Parliament.
But he was not content to revive the exact classical meaning in place of the vague or weak English acceptation; he often kept both senses, and loaded the word with two meanings at once. When Samson speaks of Dalila as
That specious monster, my accomplished snare—
something of this double sense resides in both epithets. In two words we are told that Dalila was both beautiful and deceitful, that she was skilled in the blandishments of art, and successful in the work of her husband's undoing. With a like double reference Samson calls the secret of his strength "my capital secret." Where light, again, is called the "prime work of God," or where we are told that Hell saw "Heaven ruining from Heaven," the original and derivative senses of the words "prime" and "ruin" are united in the conception. These words, and many others similarly employed, are of Latin origin; but Milton carried his practice over into the Saxon part of our vocabulary. The word "uncouth" is used in a double-barrelled sense in the Second Book of Paradise Lost—
Who shall tempt with wandering feet The dark, unbottomed, infinite Abyss, And through the palpable obscure find out His uncouth way?